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Abiy Ahmed. Photo: Simona Granati/Corbis/Getty Images

Ethiopia has delayed a critical general election that was to be held on June 5 and stands as a critical test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the hopes for democracy in Africa's second-largest country by population.

Why it matters: Ethiopia is in the midst of a wave of ethnic violence, a vicious war in the northern Tigray region, and an existential debate about how power should be divided between the regions, ethnic groups and the state.

  • "Abiy's supporters believe he's the one man who can bring Ethiopia beyond the ethno-federal system that they argue threatens the country's survival," says William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.
  • But since Abiy took power in 2018, conflict between regional parties and the national government has only increased, as have clashes between ethnic groups.
  • And while Abiy has revolutionized Ethiopian politics, he hasn't yet faced the voters. He desperately needs an election win to bolster his domestic legitimacy and restore some level of international support.

Driving the news: Ethiopia's electoral commission predicted a delay of less than three weeks, but the logistical issues that forced the delay — registering voters, training electoral staff, distributing ballots — are tied to security challenges that won't be resolved anytime soon.

  • Nor will the grievances of the opposition parties that have declared a boycott.
  • "Ethiopia will face significant challenges in organizing an effective election whenever it's done," Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, tells Axios.
  • Flashback: Abiy previously postponed the elections, which had been scheduled for last August, citing the pandemic.

That delay helped spark the war in Tigray, as the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed Abiy was illegitimately extending his term and defied him by proceeding with regional elections.

  • After an alleged TPLF raid on a military base last November, Abiy launched a military offensive paired with a telecommunications blackout that has kept the conflict largely shrouded in darkness.
  • The reports that have emerged are horrific, including allegations of ethnic cleansing and systematic sexual violence.
  • The state of play: Ethiopian troops swiftly ousted the TPLF from the regional capital, but are now battling an insurgency.

Troops from neighboring Eritrea have been repeatedly accused of carrying out atrocities in Tigray, and the State Department said Saturday that they remain in the country despite Abiy's pledge that they would leave.

  • Their presence "further undermines Ethiopia’s stability and national unity," the State Department said. Washington also accused the Ethiopian government of blocking humanitarian access to Tigray.
  • Between the lines: Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea. Now they've joined forces against the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics before Abiy took power in 2018.

There will be no voting in Tigray if the elections proceed. It will also be hard to hold them in parts of Oromia, Ethiopia's largest state, where another insurgency is raging.

  • The two main parties representing Abiy's own Oromo ethnic group planned to boycott the elections due to alleged government repression.
  • The EU recently canceled plans to observe the election, saying it hadn't received necessary assurances from the government.
  • Access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram was blocked after the delay was announced, according to NetBlocks.

The bottom line: Abiy promised a new dawn in which Ethiopia's politics would be defined by national, rather than ethnic, identity.

  • But Ethiopia's transition must come through negotiation rather than force, Davison contends — or else a prime minister heralded as a democratic reformer will instead become a new brand of authoritarian.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The president of New York City's firefighters union told reporters Wednesday that he's advised unvaccinated members to ignore Mayor Bill de Blasio's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, per Reuters.

Why it matters: Under de Blasio's order that's due to take effect Friday, unvaccinated city employees would be placed on unpaid leave. But Uniformed Firefighters Association head Andrew Ansbro said he told members that "if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty," according to Reuters.

4 hours ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.

By the numbers: Catholics, Biden and abortion

Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Biden — the second Catholic U.S. president — will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, as some church leaders debate whether to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

By the numbers: Overall, two in three U.S. Catholics believe Biden should be allowed to take Communion despite his stance on abortion, according to polling by Pew Research Center.